ST. PETERSBURG — Shoppers flocked to B. Chandler's, a small and densely organized store in the shadow of the Bond Hotel, in part for the fine merchandise they could not get anywhere else.
Two rooms in a little green house at 428 Fourth St. N were stuffed with things like china, silver, table accessories and decorative objects. Crystal, fine china and bridal items took up a third room.
But the store's rarest commodity was the service provided by its namesake, Bebe Chandler.
Mrs. Chandler, an expert in china, crystal and silver, moved to the St. Petersburg area as a child and never left. She knew hundreds of locals, especially in socially prominent circles, and that knowledge informed the choices she made when customers asked her advice.
Mrs. Chandler died May 31. She was 88.
At a time when customers either shopped in person or through the mail, B. Chandler's took orders by phone, shipping gifts all over the world. Two shelves in a back room were reserved for customers' calling cards, kept on file in envelopes, which the store included with gift-wrapped shipments.
"People would call and say, 'I've been invited to so-and-so's wedding, I want to spend X dollars, put one of my cards in it and send me a bill,'" said Marian McGrath, Mrs. Chandler's daughter. "It was kind of a precursor to Internet shopping."
Holiday workers were so busy that gift-wrapping tables had to be set up in the parking lot.
"If you wanted Bebe herself, you just waited your turn, because her ideas and her tastes were very valued," said Cary Bond Thomas, whose family has operated a string of hotels since the 1930s, including the Bond Hotel adjacent to the store.
Bebe Dabbs was born in Dadeville, Ala., in 1922. She moved with her family in 1931 to St. Petersburg Beach.
Her first husband died during World War II. After the war she married Robert McGrath. In 1948, she went to work for jeweler Bruce Watters Sr.
She worked for Maas Brothers for a few years in the late 1960s, heading up the store's first bridal services department, then moved to Owen-Cotter Jewelers on Central Avenue.
After the marriage to McGrath ended in divorce, she married Art Chandler, a partner in the fine china and gift shop that would become the forerunner of B. Chandler's. Just one of the store's unusual offerings: tool boxes for women in rose, pink, lavender, blue and red, which were shipped from Holland and recommended for knitting and craft items. The Chandlers ran the store until they were in their early 70s, selling it in 1993.
"Her secret to success was that she knew us," said Marty Wallace, a lifelong friend. "Those were the days of shopping with confidence, with a friend."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.